Yankees-Astros Opening Day starting pitchers: Cortes vs. Valdez

March 19th, 2024

The expected matchup of Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole – the previous two American League Cy Young Award winners – didn’t materialize, with both aces headed to the injured list to start the season. Instead, the Astros and Yankees will feature a battle of tough lefties on Opening Day with of Houston facing off against New York's on March 28 at Minute Maid Park.

The debut of Juan Soto and Alex Verdugo in pinstripes and the managerial debut of Joe Espada, the former Yankees third-base coach who takes over for the legendary Dusty Baker at the helm in Houston, highlights the latest chapter of the Astros-Yankees rivalry. The teams, who have met in the playoffs four times in the postseason since 2015 (the Astros are 4-0), are among the heavy favorites to win the AL pennant.

Previous Opening Day starts: 2022 and '23, both with the Astros
2023 Season: 12-11, 3.45 ERA, 200 strikeouts in 198 innings

The Astros are counting on Valdez to return to his stellar 2021-22 form, when the workhorse emerged as one of the top southpaws in the game. He backed that up in the first half of last year before things went awry in the final three months of the season and the playoffs. With Verlander set to begin the season on the IL as he works his way back from a shoulder issue, a healthy and effective Valdez is of paramount importance for the Astros.

After going 7-6 with a 2.51 ERA in his first 17 starts and making the AL All-Star team, Valdez was 5-5 with a 4.66 ERA in his final 14 starts of last year, which included an Aug. 1 no-hitter against Cleveland. He lost all three of his playoff starts, posting a 9.00 ERA – a far cry from his stellar postseason of 2022 (1.44 ERA in 25 innings), when he helped lead the Astros to the World Series title.

“I’ve been with him since I got to the big leagues and I’ve seen the ups and downs, and any time he’s got an opportunity to start on Opening Day it’s a big deal,” Espada said. “You can’t take away from that moment. He’s super excited. … It speaks to how far he’s come and I’m proud of the work he’s done. He’s a valuable pitcher and one of the best pitchers, one of the best starters in the Major Leagues. I’m proud of him.”

Previous Opening Day starts: None
2023 Season: 5-2, 4.97 ERA, 67 strikeouts in 63 1/3 innings

An Opening Day nod in place of the reigning Cy Young Award winner Cole represents the latest chapter in a story of perseverance against long odds for Cortes, once a 36th-round pick in the 2013 MLB Draft out of Hialeah (Fla.) High School.

Designated for assignment, released and traded in his career, Cortes made cameos with the Orioles (2018), Yankees (2019) and Mariners (2020) before returning to the Bombers in 2021. Incorporating a creative array of arm angles and funky hesitations, Cortes put it all together to become a fan favorite and American League All-Star in ’22.

“I’ve kind of always been the up-and-down guy earlier in my career, at best a fifth starter,” Cortes said. “I was able to get the All-Star [appearance] under my belt, but this [Opening Day assignment] was far-fetched for me. I’m just happy that [manager] Aaron Boone and the organization have the trust in me to go out there for the first game.”